December 6th: Lost Time – 22 years on

This December 6th, twenty-two years on from the massacre of female engineering students in Montreal, I’m reflecting on lost time and wasted potential.

Twenty-two years ago I was in second year university. I remember it was hard to deal with the fact that male flat mates and friends did not think this was a crime against women. They said Lepine was crazy, and this wasn’t a reflection of the status of women in society. But we were university women at the time – the women of Ecole Polytechnique were our colleagues. The two male friends I spoke to that day felt that if women went to vigils and banded together to mourn, it meant they (men) were to blame. It was so much easier to avoid the issues and focus on the insanity of it all. But, for me and my female friends, that didn’t feel like the whole story.

Two years later, graduating from what is arguably one of our country’s best universities, was ironically the greatest drop in status I have ever experienced. One day I was a well-respected literature student, the next, I was an unemployed, dime-a-dozen graduate with a ‘useless’ liberal arts degree. I didn’t want to jump on the post-graduate train like many of my friends. It felt like throwing good money after bad. But the bleakness of a talk I’d been to in the English department a few months before graduation weighed heavy on me. An older male professor I did not recognize led a meeting informing us of the statistics the university had gathered on English undergraduate employment in the years after graduation. I think most of the female professors would not have been able to face us with such news, with no support plan in sight. The report outlined that women in the first five years after graduation were most likely to find employment as clerks and bank tellers. I remember the professor smiled apologetically after reading this, and explained that this was only the first five years, until they found their place. I don’t remember much of what he said after that. I thing something about people finding their niche, starting small businesses, going back to college for specific professional certificate courses. It is ironic this beacon of higher learning was subtly telling us ($100,000 and an incredible amount of work and dedication later) we would probably have to now go to community college for some practical certificate in human resources management or some such.

This reminds me of a particularly personable male colleague with a 3-year sociology degree who decided to just go to Hong Kong and get a job in business – which he did with seeming ease, while I did my 2 years time as a clerk and then fled overseas to teach English.

As our government is putting out data that shows how full day junior kindergarten is going to increase the profitability of the workforce in twenty years, I sigh and hunch my shoulders. Wouldn’t it be so much cheaper, easier and more immediate to invest in good guidance programs integrated within high school and university curricula to help already-well-educated young adults find ways to use their talents, skills and education in the workplace right now. There are thousands of women graduating liberal arts every year and then virtually dropping into the vacuum of apparent uselessness in the workforce. I can’t tell you how many times I was told ‘but you have no job skills’. I don’t know if I even knew how to articulate the skills I did have, and how they could be applied: research, clear writing, knowledge of grammar and punctuation, reading and synthesizing long texts, analysis.

Just recently I met a young woman who has just graduated with an MA in Literature from University of Toronto (how’s that for skills in hoop jumping. We’re talking the cream of the literary crop!). She has a part time joe-job and is working on her creative writing. She told me her last boyfriend told her after graduation that she would make a great personal assistant. We both balked at the re-telling in dumbfounded outrage. So, twenty-two years on our society is still wasting the talents of women graduating in largely female dominated undergraduate degrees. Women who excel in the ‘soft skills’. There’s a pink collar ghetto if I ever saw one. Though my first career after clerking, is the pink collar ghetto extraordinaire! ESL teaching (largely kept part-time and out of the union, no paid vacation or benefits, largely year-round, continuous intake in private language institutes) is of course, as one of my colleagues described it – the Cinderella in the closet of the wider education system. After 10 years in the field with an MA in TESOL, I finally got to teaching at community colleges and universities where I lived in Ottawa.  I had gone through jobs as Algonquin, U of O, when Carleton called. I had promised myself I was leaving the profession in spite of feeling that I was doing good work, and absolutely dedicated to NOT sacrificing my clients’ education, though I was personally filling the gap between the budget of the administration and the needs of the students. The lovely woman who interviewed me and called to offer me my first 3-month contract was shocked when I turned it down. “This is the best-paying ESL teaching job in the city!” she exclaimed. “But I’ll have to re-apply for my job every three months.” “Yes, but for the most part we are able to continue giving contracts.”  No, I just couldn’t continue to be a part of it. Like at Algonquin where they had to lay us off every six months to keep us out of the union. I had called Employment Equity, who told me that it wasn’t really an employment equity issue.

When my first love, yoga, started to become more mainstream, and it seemed we could actually, possibly make a living teaching, I channelled all of my educational expertise and long-time interest in meditation and Indian philosophy into my second career, and opened a yoga teacher training organization. I am very happy, and feel that running an institute for yoga teacher eduction allows me to use so many of my interests and talents without the bureaucratic hassles of teaching at a university. Twenty years ago, I could not have dreamed of a more perfect career for myself.

But, when I think of all the wasted time and thwarted efforts, and the pamphlets that the English department gave us before graduation, the loss of identity, the unsupported struggle to serve society in a way that was meaningful to me, I cringe, I writhe, I feel fully the incredible impotence of second class citizenship. I help women (and men) find their unique ways of contributing through the diverse tradition of yoga, and this is incredibly satisfying. I wish I could help my brilliant U of T graduate friend. She’s 23, and may be looking at spending the next five years underemployed, while the Government of Ontario continues to roll out full day kindergarten programs.

In fact, I support publicly-funded full-day preschool and kindergarten programs, but not because they will help increase our GNP in 20 years, but because they give needed enrichment to children who might not otherwise get it, and they support women in going back to work and maintaining financial independence without having to spend most of their income on child-care. And as I have discussed, will adding two years of education on the books really help 50% of them contribute to our GNP if we do not improve our record in helping these educated girls achieve their career potential?

The women killed at Ecole Polytechnique did not get the chance to complete their education, to use their engineering skills or to enter the workforce. One man didn’t want the competition – women in this generally male-dominated field. To honour those women, I don’t want to waste any more time not playing my full role.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Idas
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 13:10:33

    Incredible Chetana. You took my breath away with how profound this post is.
    I hope this finds its way around the world to recognize what words often fail to explain.
    What a gift. This should get taped to the hallways of every university.
    May I Facebook this post to share with my friends?
    Thank you Chetana for this post.
    From my heart
    Namaste
    Idas

    Reply

  2. akhandayoga
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 15:20:00

    Dear Idas, namaste! Yes, absolutely feel free to repost. I totally agree about more information out there for university students in first year so they can prepare and properly choose what to do from the beginning (rather than after spending $100,000) with the elusive suggestion that they are the cream of the crop.
    Thanks for reading and sharing!

    I wanted also to say to anyone reading that I have plenty to say about what I saw in the ESL world about immigration, job and apartment search challenges for New Canadians, discrimination even outside of the all-important job search, and misleading advertisements out there that imply that the government is doing a good job with its language training for newcomers (LINC). An ad I saw not too long ago showed an Indian-Canadian woman working in a company in import/export using her language skills. It was a promo for government-funded language classes for New Canadians. I have taught such courses and my husband for a short time took such courses, and the teachers are in no way paid to, or able to help students find jobs in their career areas (as immigration agents in their own countries often promised them). In fact, our own under-payment and job security issues, plus lack of materials, and over-crowded classes, often even further disempowered us to adequately teach and support the new immigrants as often their first line of support in Canada.

    Reply

  3. Margarete Daugela
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 20:13:31

    Thank you very much for all of your postings, this one in particular speaks to my heart right now. So much of your situation describes what I have been going through. An element that I would like to add to the discussion of this situation is that of the great onus that I think many people in un- and underemployed situations feel. I do not believe that I am alone in having had moments of blaming myself for my employment situation. In moments of clarity I see the error of assigning blame to myself- I gained work experience while studying, took advantage of work-study abroad programs, maintained high marks and volunteered, however, it only seemed to take a statistic on the radio about the huge increases in the number of jobs to make me wonder why I was not one of them and start thinking about all the things I should have done differently.
    I am fortunate to have found a part time job related to social justice about one year after graduation but the stress and dependence on family for that year was quite demeaning. About six months after graduating I read about the Conservatives commitment to reducing unemployment in their platform. It was tough to read as it felt like more of the same- that the direction of the majority party would make me even less desirable in the workplace. I felt and still feel frustrated with the direction that leadership has taken economics in Canada, especially when there is so much potential for new understandings of economic rights.
    Although I have a job now, I will likely follow the path you mentioned that so many do- returning to a post-secondary institution to earn some type of professional credential. The field that I love to work in is increasingly not a priority for the current political will and this translates into poor resources and insecure funding. I do not handle stress well and do not think that long-term I can stay in a field that focuses on social issues, let alone social justice.
    The tone of this note was not meant to be as low as I now realize it is. Reading the blog post I felt a sense of connection with regard to these issues that I have been wanting to feel. To feel not alone is an important thing.
    I should also mention that the time I had between graduation and consistent employment allowed me to do the teacher training through World Conscious Yoga Family and to make a few more trips overseas. The uncertainty of that period of time did test my self confidence though.
    I will be passing along your blog to a few others I know could use your words. Thanks again.

    Reply

  4. eila
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 00:33:04

    Dear Chetana, your writings are eloquent, potent! Thank you for bridging a tragedy, with ongoing discrimination. It is necessary for us to remember the women who were killed, and for us to continue individually and collectively to work toward equality and shine light on things that are not as they appear to be. I honour your ‘full role’, and mine. Om~

    Reply

  5. Loren Crawford
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 11:36:12

    Well stated. Sadly our currently Canadian, er ah, should I say Harper Government, actually believes that women have achieved equality. They’ve said that! That is why so many equity/equality seeking programs are being axed under this government. Sad sad sad!
    Slowly things will change, but we have to keep aggitating. It’s good to see females occupying premier’s offices. We need to see more shakti imbueing everything.

    Reply

  6. Pierre Bélisle
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 11:16:15

    So true. On the other hand, why are colleges and universities offering degrees with little or no market value? Could it be that it is a good way for them to get grants and revenues at minimum cost as a result of “bums in the seat financing”? For example, my daughter is passionate about Nature. So che took a 3 year college degree in Nature interpretation only to find out that most of the jobs in that field are summer jobs where she was in competition with university students (for whom the employer got government subsidies). Needless to say, after more than 5 years of part time jobs in that field (and a fair amount of UI), she moved on to other things.

    Reply

  7. Sheila
    Dec 09, 2011 @ 11:48:50

    Thanks Chetana, I love teaching at the university and I deeply resent the inequities that limit my opportunities for continuing this work. The situation for grads, BA through to PhD, are demoralizing to say the least. Thanks for posting and making the connections between education, employment and violence. Understanding the continuum of inequity is so very important in the struggle for social change. Respect, Sheila.

    Reply

  8. Karen McKinnon
    Dec 12, 2011 @ 10:39:30

    Chetana, you have such an eloquent way with words. The very last sentence was quite powerful and I loved reading that short, simple phrase. “I don’t want to waste any more time not playing my full role.” I’m revel in hearing your thoughts and feelings more through your blog. You are inspiring. 🙂 Love.

    Reply

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